On the Value of People and Animals

Christine Korsgaard

© Sam Knowles

From The Philosopher, vol. 108, no. 1 ("The Other Animals"). 

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"In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price, or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced with something else, as its equivalent; whereas what is elevated above any price, and hence allows of no equivalent, has a dignity."

Immanuel Kant

We human beings are animals, and share the world with the other animals, who are in many respects like ourselves. Many of them are sentient beings, capable of joy and suffering. Many have some sense of self, and care for the others round them. The other animals find themselves, as we human beings find ourselves, thrown into the world and faced with basic tasks of living: feeding themselves, raising children, and dealing with all the difficulties and dangers that arise from doing these things in a world where others, with competing interests, are trying to do them too.

Despite these obvious similarities, we do not treat the other animals the way we at least think we ought to treat each other. Rather, throughout history, we have eaten the other animals, experimented on them, tested medications on them, kept ourselves warm with their fur and skin and feathers, used them for transport and for heavy work like pulling ploughs and tractors, enlisted them in our wars, made them fight and race for our entertainment, and held them in captivity for the sake of their companionship. Most of these practices are detrimental to the interests of the animals themselves, whom we have genetically altered in harmful ways by selective breeding, made to work beyond their capacity, subjected to torments in laboratories, and confined to factory farms where they lead short lives in deplorable conditions. Even when we do not use the other animals, we have usually been heedless of their welfare, freely killing them whenever they are a nuisance to us, and depriving them of the habitat on which they and their communities depend for leading their own lives.


What could justify this difference between the way we treat human beings, or anyway the way we think we ought to treat them, and the way we treat the other animals? Some philosophers have argued that only rational beings have the kind of value that makes us objects of moral concern, and that we are therefore free to treat the other animals however we please. They believe that animals lack what philosophers call “moral standing,” which means, speaking roughly, that what happens to you matters for its own sake – or as we will see when we come to Kant, for your own sake – and not because of its effects on anyone else. But most people are uncomfortable with that stark conclusion, because they believe that it is morally wrong to subject an animal to wanton or “unnecessary” cruelty – that is, cruelty not required by the more important purposes for which we use them. So most of us think we have at least some duties to animals, even if these are rather minimal. But if you do not accept the view that we have no duties to animals, and yet you think that some of the practices I have mentioned here are morally permissible, then it looks as if you must think that although what happens to animals is of some moral importance, what happens to people matters more. You must think, that is, that people are more important, or more valuable, than the other animals. In this paper, I will ask whether that makes any sense.

We must start by asking what we mean when we claim that people and what happens to them is morally important, or what it means to have “moral standing.” Leaving animals aside for a moment, the central idea of moral thinking is sometimes expressed by the idea that human beings have, or human life has, a special kind of value, different from the value of the ordinary objects that we use, exchange, or appreciate. It is because of this special kind of value that it matters what happens to people, and how we treat them. Two philosophical traditions have dominated moral thought since the eighteenth century, one springing from the work of the utilitarian philosophers and the other arising from the work of Immanuel Kant. These two schools of thought understand the idea of human value very differently. In what follows I explain these two conceptions of human value, and ask what the implications of those views are for the value of the other animals. In particular, I ask whether and in what sense these theories support the common view that people are more important or valuable than the other animals, in the sense that what happens to people matters more.


Utilitarians are what moral philosophers call “consequentialists.” That is, they believe that what makes an action (or a rule or a policy) right or wrong is the goodness or badness of the consequences it brings about. The right action is the one that brings about the best possible consequences. Traditional utilitarians believe that the best possible consequence is the greatest balance of pleasure over pain, taking into account the pleasures and pains of all who are affected by the action. Some contemporary utilitarians believe that the best possible consequence is instead whatever best satisfies people’s desires, or the greatest balance of satisfaction over frustration. What has value in the first instance in these theories is either pleasure and the absence of pain, or satisfaction and the absence of frustration.

The earliest utilitarians thought of pleasure and pain as measurable states, with a certain intensity and duration. This is the “quantity” of a pleasure or pain. John Stuart Mill, in his book Utilitarianism, added a third dimension along which we can measure the value of a pleasure. He thought pleasures may vary in “quality.” Mill believed that those who are trained in the various activities that give us pleasure show decided preferences for certain activities regardless of the quantity of pleasure they produce, and that these preferences must be explained in terms of the higher quality of pleasure these activities produce. The preference of educated people for poetry, good literature, fine art and music, for example, he thought, must be explained in terms of the high quality of the pleasures these activities offer. According to utilitarianism, deciding what is right or wrong is a matter of calculating: adding up all pleasures and pains or satisfactions and frustrations caused by an action, taking into account their intensity, duration, and perhaps their quality, to see just how much good the action does.

© Sam Knowles

On this view, what gives a creature – that is, a human being or an animal – value is his or her capacity for a life that has value in it. People and animals have value or moral standing – what happens to them matters for its own sake – because they are capable of pleasure and pain, or satisfaction and frustration, and those things matter for their own sakes.

Utilitarians hold that in one clear sense, human beings are not more important than the other animals. All animals who are capable of pleasure and pain (or satisfaction and frustration) should count equally in our calculations of what will bring about the greatest balance of pleasure over pain. Nearly everyone agrees that this includes all mammals and birds, but it probably also includes reptiles, amphibians, fish and maybe even invertebrates such as insects. That means that you should never discount the value of a pleasure or a pain merely because it is the pleasure or pain of, say, a dog or a toad. If these animals are capable of pleasure and pain, then what happens to them matters for its own sake, just as what happens to us does.

In another sense, however, utilitarians think that human beings might still be more important than animals. If animals experience less pleasure and pain than people do, then even if we count animals equally when we calculate how much pleasure and pain are produced by our actions, the results of our calculations will often favour human beings. Suppose, to take a somewhat lurid example, we have to choose between whipping a dog and whipping a human being (these are the only two actions open to us, and we must do one of them – never mind why; it’s just an example). Suppose also, admittedly controversially, that the whipping will hurt the human being more than it will hurt the dog, because besides the physical pain, the human being will be humiliated by the whipping. Or suppose that the physical pain itself will be worse for the human being, because human beings are less accustomed to physical suffering than the other animals are. In either of these cases, we produce less pain by whipping the dog than whipping the person, so the utilitarian calculation says that, if we have to choose, we should whip the dog rather than the person. That gives us a sense in which the person’s greater sensitivities make him more important than the dog, even though in the sense described earlier, the person and the dog are equally important. Finally, suppose that Mill was right, and that pleasures and pains can differ in quality as well as quantity. And suppose, as many people do, that human beings are capable of experiencing a higher quality of pleasure than the other animals. Then again, our calculations will lead us to treat human beings better than the other animals, at least in cases where we have to choose between them.


Utilitarians who think that the good rests in satisfaction and the absence of frustration give us another reason for supposing that we have good reason for treating people as more important than the other animals, a reason that applies especially when we are faced with the choice between killing a person and killing an animal (this argument was introduced by Peter Singer in his 1979 paper “Killing Humans and Killing Animals”, although he has modified his position and his views of which animals it applies to over the years). We humans have a sense of ourselves as having an existence that is extended in time, and, ordinarily, a wish that our lives should continue into the future. We also have desires for states of affairs that will only be realized in the future, and for the fulfilment of long-term plans. A person may hope to finish the book she has spent years writing, or to retire and travel around the world, or to raise her children safely to maturity. The other animals, many people believe, do not have a sense of their existence that is extended in time, but rather live wholly in the moment, so that all that can matter to them is that their lives be comfortable and happy in the here and now. So for all of these reasons, death is supposedly a much worse thing for a human than it is for an animal, and an action that will destroy or endanger the lives of humans is usually a worse thing than an action that will destroy or endanger the lives of the other animals. Again, if we have to choose, we should choose the action that favours people.


So in one sense, utilitarians think animals are just as important as people – the pleasures and pains, or desires and frustrations, of animals should count just much as those of people in utilitarian calculations. But in another sense, utilitarians may predict that their calculations will often work out in favour of people, at least in cases where, for some reason, we have to choose between the welfare or the lives of people and welfare or lives of animals. Of course, these conclusions are based on empirical assumptions that can be questioned. We can ask whether it is true that people are more sensitive to pleasure and pain than the other animals, or better appreciators of the higher pleasures, or whether animals really have no sense of their existence as extended in time, and so on. If these assumptions are wrong, the calculations may not turn out to favour people in the way the utilitarian predicts.




But there is another problem, or so some of us think, with the utilitarian view, which is that there is also a sense in which, according to utilitarianism, people and animals are not important at all. Rather, what has value, or matters, is pleasure and pain, or the satisfaction and frustration of desire. People and the other animals only matter because their lives contain these values. People and animals are, in a word the philosopher Tom Regan liked to use, “receptacles” of value, and that is what makes us valuable.

The consequences of this view again become clearest when we consider matters of life and death. Some utilitarians, such as Peter Singer, have argued that if it is true that the other animals live wholly in the moment, then as long as we do not mistreat them, it would be all right to kill them to eat them, so long as we replace them with other animals whose lives contain just as much pleasure or satisfaction as the ones we have killed. After all, there would be just as much pleasure or satisfaction in the world as there was before. For example, we could raise animals for food, treat them well while they are alive, kill them humanely, and replace them with more animals whom we also treat well. This would be all right, because the new animals’ lives would “contain” just as much pleasure as the lives of the ones we have killed. This argument is not supposed to apply to humans, because we have a conception of ourselves as extended in time, and a desire that our lives should continue, which is frustrated if we are killed. Of course, we might reply that so far as that argument goes, we could also kill human beings, so long as we replaced them with other human beings, who would also have a desire that their lives should continue, which would be satisfied so long as they remained alive. For then there would be just as much satisfaction in the world as there was before. The utilitarian conception of value makes one creature whose life contains just as much value as another’s the equivalent of, and exchangeable for, that other’s.




On the utilitarian view, the value of people and animals is derivative from the values that their lives contain. As we have seen, it follows that one human being can serve as the equivalent of another, when their life contains just as much value. The utilitarian view of human value therefore stands in sharp contrast with the Kantian view. Kant says:

In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price, or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced with something else, as its equivalent; whereas what is elevated above any price, and hence allows of no equivalent, has a dignity.


On the Kantian view, each person has a special kind of value, a “dignity” that renders him or her irreplaceable, a value that cannot be substituted for anything else. In fact, on the Kantian view, things like pleasure and pain, and satisfaction and dissatisfaction, only matter because they matter to people, and people matter. The central moral thought is that each person’s life matters, in a way that admits of no equivalent, because it matters to that person himself or herself. That is why I suggested earlier that on the Kantian view what it means for what happens to you to matter for “its own sake” is for it to matter for your sake. What is good for people matters absolutely, in the sense of being something we should all strive for and care about, because people themselves have a special kind of value: as Kant himself put it, people are “ends in themselves.”


It’s important to see that, structurally, this Kantian view is the opposite of the utilitarian one. For utilitarians, pleasure or the satisfaction of desire is what has value, in the first instance. People, and the other animals, have value only because their lives can have these valuable things in them. On the Kantian view, it is people, and perhaps the other animals – we will come to that shortly – that have value in the first instance. Pleasure, satisfaction, or whatever other goods there might be have value only because they are good for people, or for other sentient beings. People are not just “receptacles” of value – instead they are the source of the absolute or moral value of the things that are good for them. What happens to people matters because people matter – not the reverse.


On this view there is no implication that we might just as well replace one person with another if the second one’s life contains just as much value. Rather, on this view, the kind of value we assign to people themselves is non-comparative. As Kant puts it in the passage I have quoted, it has no equivalent, and cannot be replaced by anything else.


And there is a reason for this irreplaceability. On this view, my pleasures and satisfactions, my life, are good because they are good-for-me, and yours are good because they are good-for-you. What is good because it is good-for-you is no substitute for what is good because it is good-for-me. To see why, consider a comparison: if I sacrifice a small pleasure now in order to get a great pleasure (or avoid a great pain) later on, what I get is, on the whole, better for me. So I am compensated for my sacrifice. But if my pleasures are sacrificed the sake of yours, because yours will be greater, no one is compensated. I am not compensated, since all I get is the sacrifice, and you are not compensated, since you have made no sacrifice to be compensated for.


So on Kant’s view, each of us has a kind of non-comparative value that makes what happens to us matter morally or absolutely. To put it another way, each of us has the right to claim that other people should treat what matters to us as mattering absolutely, at least – and this is an important caveat – so long as we treat what matters to other people in the same way. As individuals, we human beings cannot claim that things that are good for us are good absolutely, unless the things themselves and the actions through which we pursue them are compatible with the good of others.


But there is a further implication of this view that Kant himself did not foresee. Kant thought that what gives human beings the value of dignity is our capacity for morality. He reasoned that, as I have just suggested, ends that are chosen or pursued in a way that is incompatible with morality cannot be good, so it is the moral law that determines the value of things. To put it another way, because morality sets a limit on our right to demand that others treat what is good for us as good absolutely, Kant thought that morality must be the source of that right.


Kant himself concluded that animals, as non-moral beings, have no value at all. He did not think that what happens to them – or what we do to them – matters morally. But as I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, most people are uncomfortable with that view, since most people believe that it does matter whether animals suffer, and it is wrong for us to make them do so, at least when it is “unnecessary.” If what happens to animals matters morally, then animals too must have the kind of value that Kant called “dignity.” The good and bad things that happen to them matter because the animals themselves matter. Each animal’s life matters, because it matters to the animal himself or herself. The reason why what happens to them matters is not that they are moral beings, but simply because they are the kinds of beings to whom good and bad things can happen – sentient beings. But – and this is the implication I said that Kant did not foresee – if dignity is a non-comparative value, then no one can have more of it than anyone else: in particular, people cannot be more important than the other animals.




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© Sam Knowles

In this way, the two most important moral theories of the modern period both lead to the conclusion that people do not, in the most fundamental sense, have more value than the other animals. People are not more important than the other animals: to answer the question I started out from, that claim does not make any sense. But the reason why people and animals have this value are almost opposite in the two theories. On the utilitarian view, the lives of people and animals matter because they contain the things that have value in the first instance – pleasure or the satisfaction of desire. The value of people and animals is derivative from the value of the states their lives can contain. You can substitute one life for another if it contains just as much value as the other, for they are equivalent. On the Kantian view, it is people and animals themselves that have value in the first instance, and the moral importance of the things that happen to them derives from that value. You cannot substitute one life for another, even if one contains more value than the other, because what’s good because it is good-for-me cannot be substituted for what is good because it is good-for-you – or for a dog or a cow. The Kantian view says that every one of us, as a creature for whom things can be good or bad, has a special kind of value, a value that cannot be substituted for or exchanged for anything else. Each creature’s life matters, and matters uniquely and irreplaceably, because it matters to that creature himself or herself.

Christine M. Korsgaard is professor of philosophy at Harvard University. She works on moral philosophy and its history, practical reason, the nature of agency, personal identity, normativity, and the ethical relations between human beings and the other animals. Her latest book, Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals, was published in paperback this year.

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